What made you want to be an adventurer? Where does that thirst come from?
I’m mixed race and my dad was Indian and I didn’t ever learn enough about where he came from when I was younger so I guess I had this thirst for understanding ‘the other’ if you like that came about from not understanding that part of my heritage. I went to a school in Windsor where I played rugby. It was a state school, an awesome opportunity within the state system to do these things. We had the chance to go travelling abroad. My mum worked as a cleaner and saved up to send me on a rugby tour to New Zealand, which she loved. And I went there and I just thought “This place is amazing—this is beautiful, the culture is similar but the people just do stuff in a different way.”
So would you say there’s an anthropological interest?
Totally. Yes. It’s an anthropological interest but also an immersive interest. I go somewhere to find something out about that place, though I’m always interested in focusing on an individual, a person, and what we learn about where we live through that individual’s experience. If you go somewhere it has to be focused around someone that you can find in that place, and what you learn about that place through that person. Sometimes that’s surprising and unexpected. So you might find someone in London that does something you don’t expect. Or it might be that you find someone in the middle of the Sudanese desert doing something trivial that’s recognisable to you and I. In both cases it’s about finding something unexpected.
What do you think about the codification of rituals? Take Japan, for example, versus France and England.
What works for Japan so well is that their rituals are codified, whereas we have those rituals but no one has really formalised them in a book.
You’re in the army on the Reserve List, which you joined at the age of 29; you’ve worked as a school teacher and also a ski instructor. Which is the closest to adventuring?
Everything you do in the army you do in the format of an institution so you’re never totally alone. As an officer you’re responsible for 30 guys, so there’s an immediate force making you develop. What I found most challenging was going off to be a Cowboy in Australia, it was something I did and no one taught me how to do it. In the army there’s a structure. If you have an adventurous streak the army’s the best apprenticeship.
How long were you a cowboy?
For a month before I fell off a racehorse and spent a week in hospital.
Is it wanderlust that drives you, or is it something else?
I think all of it is philosophical. Which is considering what the right way to live is, what can give us happiness, and what can other people teach us about how to live. You meet some people who have reached such peace in their life, or a contentment, and I’m interested in what combination of experiences and skills get them to that point.
Which travel writer do you admire?
Eric Newby, he wrote A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, and it’s so full of humour, it’s brilliant.
Does exploration and adventuring broaden your mind, would you say? What’s the most enlightening thing you’ve seen?
Totally. It can create empathy, because you get that personal bond with someone who might lead a completely different life to you and yet you suddenly find something in common. I came back recently from Albania and when I came back I felt more connected to people that weren’t in my normal social circles back in London.
Why do you think that is?
Because I’d just spent the week with farmers in Albania. If I can find something in common with people I see there, why is it that we walk past so many people and just don’t manage to do the same here? I think that’s what I gain personally the most from it.
What was school like for you? Has education or experience been most important?
I was a bookish geeky person who never played sport, and then I was encouraged towards rugby and my mum really pushed me towards it when I was 16. She didn’t force me or anything, just used the carrot of the journey to New Zealand and Australia to push me towards it. I used to read a lot, Star Trek and science fiction because it showed other worlds and people travelling to them. I think a lot of my empathy came about through them.
Who are you inspired by? Who do you see as a top explorer?
I admire my Mum for her astonishing fortitude raising two children single-handedly despite having an alcoholic husband. Another person is Ernest Shackleton, the polar explorer, because he was so focused on his men. He was determined and seems to come across showing quite a lot of humility, which Scott did not.
What’s the most dangerous place you’ve been?
I’ve been lucky enough to avoid life threatening situations that involve humans. Lev [Wood], and I got lost in the Himalayas, spent the night out and nearly crossed a river because we weren’t sure how to get to where we had to be. It was dark and we tried to climb up a cliff and rocks were falling all around us. We had no idea how we were going to get out, that was the most dangerous, life-threatening situation I’ve been in. It was definitely the closest I’ve been to death.
Are you ready to leave the country at short notice?
I do have a grab bag I have packed just in case—it has a compass in it. I keep a basic multi-tool in there and a passport. I also keep my second passport there with it and also all my medical records in there, too, just in case.
What’s the one item you couldn’t do without?
It sounds really wanky but I think I would take the complete works of Shakespeare.